TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Hillary Rodham Clinton has collaborated with bestselling mystery writer Louise Penny on a new suspense novel called "State Of Terror." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan decided to investigate.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I approached the package with caution. The book inside could be trouble, big trouble. Literary collaborations usually are. And this one, by two women of achievement, gave off warning signs of being a high-profile gimmick gone wrong. Don't open the book, I told myself. But I couldn't resist late-night readings undercover, so to speak. And before I knew it, I'd lost my grip and fell headlong into the frantic, feminist fantasy of "State Of Terror," a thriller by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.
Let's debrief. Clinton and Penny are personal friends, a friendship that was sparked by Clinton's admiration for Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series. In the wake of Clinton's loss of the 2016 presidential election and Penny's loss of her husband, who suffered from dementia, they decided to collaborate on a political suspense novel. The two women have said in interviews that they wanted to have some fun during a difficult time and to pay tribute to the power of female friendship. Call me naive, but the resulting thriller, though uneven, bears out their claims.
"State Of Terror" is what Graham Greene famously called an entertainment. Searching for fine writing or complex characters here would be as pointless a quest as searching for the Maltese Falcon. Instead, like most political thrillers, "State Of Terror" is a plot-driven concoction featuring a classic race against time to out-maneuver international terrorists and homegrown traitors hellbent on turning the United States into a Russian satellite state. The twist here is the gender of the action figure, who's barking commands and sweating her mascara off in the effort to save American democracy. Not only is she female but she's a late-middle-aged secretary of state named Ellen Adams.
At Adams' side is her trusted counselor and best friend from childhood, a woman named Betsy Jameson. Together, they outwit a cabal of evil potentates, minions and dictators as they ricochet around the globe on Air Force Three. Call it The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuits. "State Of Terror" is a giddy read, particularly for women of a certain age - let's say, us women of an age old enough to think that the just-concluded run of Daniel Craig as James Bond lost much of its mojo when Judi Dench as M departed the series in "Skyfall." Suspense, let alone political suspense, is still pretty much a white man's game. Lauren Wilkinson's recent Cold War thriller, "American Spy," is one of the rare novels in this genre starring a woman of color and one who's a professional.
Most often, when female characters occupy a lead role in suspense, they've stumbled into it. That's especially true of World War II thrillers starring female spies and assassins. Think of "Eye Of The Needle," by Ken Follett; "Fall From Grace," by Larry Collins; and "Three Hours In Paris." by Cara Black. Judi Dench as M was that rarest of animals, an ambitious, professional, older woman wielding power. And that's what makes "State Of Terror" intriguing, particularly in its second half, when Louise Penny's trademark one-sentence paragraphs intensify the pace of the suspense. And Hillary Clinton's fictional alter ego goes la mano a mano with two of her real-life foes, Putin, here called Ivanov, and a former American president, here called Eric Dunn.
Here, at the end of an unsuccessful fact-finding meeting with Dunn in his Palm Beach palace, Adams lets her nemesis know who's in charge. (Reading) Thank you for your time. Adams held out her hand, and when Dunn took it, she yanked and pulled the immense man right up to her so that she smelled his breath. It smelled of meat. You've made it clear that nothing happened in the White House without your approval. If there's a disaster, it will be dumped at your big, gold door. I'll make sure of that.
All thrillers are fantasy stories, fantasies about power and ingenuity. In "State Of Terror," an older woman draws on her expertise, a reserve of female solidarity and the magic of a tool James Bond never scored, a pair of Spanx. And she manages to avert disaster. As thriller fantasies go, this one feels a lot more plausible to me than most.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "State Of Terror" by Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Katie Couric. After anchoring NBC's "Today Show" for 15 years - first with Bryant Gumbel, then Matt Lauer - she moved to CBS, where she was the first woman to be the solo anchor of a network evening news show. She's written a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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